It has been said that, “… there is nothing permanent except change.” As any producer knows, this is certainly the case with the dairy industry. A recent article in the Journal of Dairy Science (Journal of Dairy Science 98: 7426 – 7445) attempts to identify some of the most important recent changes in the dairy industry and also discusses the effect these changes have had on both health and welfare of dairy cows. Below are some of the summarized points of the paper:
Reduction in farm numbers increases in herd size do not affect health and welfare: The number of farms decreased from 139,670 in 1995 to 49,331 in 2012 but the US dairy herd has only decreased by 2.5 %. The end result is that cows are increasingly managed in fewer but larger herds. No consistent, predictable association between herd size and animal health or welfare has ever been observed. This may not be a surprise to a dairy producer. The reality is that health and welfare is more likely related to things like managerial skills, rate of expansion, facilities, training expertise of personnel and the ratio of caretakers to animals.
Dropping milk prices may affect animal health or welfare: Dropping milk prices reduces profitability. In response to this, herd sizes may increase to maintain cash flows. The authors suggest that if the farm is not set up to handle the increased numbers simple overstocking may affect both health or performance and may also compromise animal welfare. Additionally dropping prices may result in actions that seek to reduce costs. This may occur by reducing what is considered “nonessential inputs” such as professional services or participation in herd monitoring programs.
The dairy producer of today is a wealth of knowledge but skilled labor is in short supply: The article notes that, “the typical dairy farmer … is well educated and knowledgeable about new technologies and has become more business-minded.” Unfortunately, with increased herd sizes more farms depend upon nonfamily workers. On many occasions, skilled workers to fill these jobs are in short supply. If unskilled and poorly trained workers are heavily relied upon, the authors suggest that health and welfare may be negatively impacted. This may be a result of a lower detection of health problems and poor animal handling, calving management, and milking technique. To avoid this, the authors suggest implementation of regular knowledge based meetings and the development of standard operating procedures. The result of these practices should be a reduction in errors associated with unskilled employees. Furthermore, we would expect increases in treatments that are correctly applied with greater consistency resulting in improved health and welfare.
The authors conclude by stating that changes in production practices and effects of animal health and welfare seem are inevitable. Nonetheless, affects on the dairy industry may be reduced if dairy producers proactively respond to these changes with knowledge based solutions.